John Hume's death, coming just after the passing of his fellow SDLP titan Seamus Mallon earlier in 2020, closes a chapter. The two men were this island's outstanding democrats and statesmen of their own era. It is by no means a stretch to say that they were the finest public representatives of the entire post-partition era, or indeed of any era.
Hume's commitment to liberal democracy and its values was constant, clear-eyed and unwavering. His belief in the peaceful resolution of inter-communal conflict was maintained throughout a period when the use of violence for political means across the western world was far more common, and for some far more acceptable, than it is today.
It was his vision, more than anyone else's, which was behind the designing of a political architecture capable of accommodating the aspirations of the two traditions on this island. He was also immensely brave, living for years with the threat of violence being perpetrated against him and his family.
The role played by Hume in changing this island could be a prime piece of evidence to support the 'Great Man' theory of history, which holds that individuals make all the difference in human affairs.
It has very been plausibly argued that had he not been involved in public life the Troubles would have gone on for many years longer than they did, and countless more lives would have been ended and destroyed.
The debate on the role individuals play in determining history relative to other factors - wider trends and forces, as well as ideas - will continue for as long as people are alive. The debate on whether the political choices made in the 1990s were the right ones, or the best ones available at the time, will continue for some time to come. Only when two big questions can be answered definitively will that be known.
The first question relates to Northern Ireland. Can its society and politics become more like other places in Europe where different communities co-exist, such as Belgium with its two linguistic communities, or Finland with its ethnic Swedish minority?
The second question relates to the Republic. If and when Sinn Féin enters government, will it act in a fully democratic manner and will it uphold the rule of law as it has functioned in this State since its foundation, or will it bring the Republic down the path of illiberal democracy that some other European countries have recently taken?
The past 25 years in Northern Ireland have been infinitely better than the previous 25. They have also been much better than the 50 years before the Troubles, when the crude majoritarianism put in place after partition made the minority community second-class citizens and subjected them to daily injustice and indignity.
But more than 22 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, few could argue that Hume's hopes, as embodied in that settlement, have been fully met.
The devolved institutions of government have repeatedly collapsed when put under pressure, and they face further huge pressures as the full force of the Covid recession hits and the coming border in the Irish Sea exposes as fanciful the claims that the North could have the best of both worlds after Brexit.
Nor did the architects of the settlement envisage that the two centrist parties, including John Hume's own SDLP, would experience a dramatic loss of support to the extremes. The Balkanisation of Northern Ireland over the past two decades, in contrast to Hume's vision, has not been better captured than by Seamus Mallon's final book - A Shared Home Place - published just last year.
In it, he was justifiably angry that the North's political centre ground did not get the support that might have made real reconciliation easier over the years since the agreement was signed.
It could of course be argued that the current situation in Northern Ireland is as good as could have been achieved given that the depth of suspicion between the two traditions remains so frighteningly strong.
It is to be hoped that the North's devolved government comes to function as effectively and inclusively as Hume hoped in 1998, reflecting his deep belief in democratic institutions as the only real and effective problem-solving mechanism for society.
The second big question about the political decisions and settlements of the 1990s relates to the politics and democratic integrity of the Republic. The peace process inevitably involved bringing Sinn Féin into the fold in Northern Ireland in order to offer the hope of making a dire situation less awful.
In order to give the North a chance to evolve, the door was opened to Sinn Féin in the Republic - other democracies would have prohibited any party whose explicit strategy for taking power was 'with the armalite (rifle) in one hand and the ballot box in the other'. The Republic, it should be recalled, is one of the oldest continuously functioning liberal democracies in the world and whatever its flaws, it came through a century in which many other peer democracies failed.
The evolution of Sinn Féin since the Good Friday Agreement has not mirrored the hope of 1998. Sinn Féin's own constitution, an important document which gets far less attention than it should, still speaks of establishing a "32 county socialist Republic" and does not recognise the Irish State and its institutions.
The party's links to the IRA and questions over whether its elected leaders are controlled by figures connected to that organisation remain very much alive.
Its continued efforts to retrospectively justify and legitimise the taking of life raise serious questions about its commitment to a perpetual peace on this island. Hume's own words on the nature of the militant republican tradition, from an essay in the London Review of Books in 1989, are worth recalling.
"The Irish people are defined by them. To judge by their actions and their contempt for the opinions of others, the Irish people as defined by them are themselves alone. They are more Irish than the rest of us, they believe. They are the pure Irish master race.
"That deep-seated attitude, married to their method, is one of the hallmarks of undiluted fascism. They have also the other hallmark of the fascist - the need for a scapegoat: as they see it, the Brits are to blame for everything - even their own atrocities! They know better than the rest of us. They know so much better that they take unto themselves the right, without consultation, to dispense death and destruction."
The current leader of Sinn Féin believes that the IRA had the right to dispense death and destruction for political ends. In this newspaper recently Mary Lou McDonald described the IRA's campaign of violence as both "justified" and "inevitable".
In fact, it was neither, as Hume's life and achievements proved more than anything else.
It may be that only when McDonald sits at Cabinet in Dublin will it be known whether the sort of inclusive politics John Hume so passionately believed can be guaranteed on this island.